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AGRICULTURE: Three-Quarters of Hungry Are Rural Poor

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 8 2010 (IPS) - Climate change, associated with a four-fold increase in natural disasters in the last decade, and the growth of world population, which is expected to reach nine billion by 2050, pose new challenges for aid initiatives like those of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

This warning comes from Gemmo Lodesani, head of the WFP office in Brussels, who is in charge of relations with the European Union and of fund-raising to fulfil the organisation’s primary commitment: fighting hunger worldwide.

Interviewed by IPS while on an unofficial visit to Brazil, Lodesani said three-quarters of the more than one billion hungry people in the world are poor farmers.

This vulnerable rural population will bear the brunt of the consequences of global warming through catastrophes like drought and flooding, he said.

“We are already seeing the impact of climate change on food production patterns. We know there are poor areas of the world that will become poorer through lack of rainfall. Desertification is already happening,” Lodesani warned.

“We have to address this now, through specific measures,” said the expert, who previously coordinated emergency food aid plans in countries like Sudan and Ivory Coast.

The WFP report titled Climate Change and Hunger: Responding to the Challenge says that “By 2050, the number of people at risk of hunger as a result of climate change is expected to increase by 10 to 20 percent more than would be expected without climate change.”

Lodesani emphasised the need for specific programmes to encourage sustainable development, through “the use of land resources to produce food” without further harming the environment.

With respect to biofuels, produced by Brazil and other countries, the WFP official’s view is that they reduce environmental pollution, but that further research on their disadvantages is needed.

Biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are derived from crops like sugarcane and vegetable oils and therefore take up agricultural land. Lodesani stressed that growing plants for biofuels must not displace food crops, “especially since world population will be over nine billion in 40 years’ time.”

Population growth is another challenge to be faced “when over one billion people already lack access to enough food to meet the nutritional recommendations of international bodies like the World Health Organisation,” Lodesani said.

When global population reaches over nine billion in 2050 it will be even more difficult to meet nutritional needs, creating a new vicious circle of poverty to be solved, he said.

“Three-quarters of the more than one billion people who are hungry today are poor farmers. This means they don’t have enough food to live a normal life, and above all a productive life, while they are the very people who are relied on to produce food,” he said.

In recent years the WFP has made it a top priority to buy food from developing countries for its aid programmes.

Lodesani said that in the last three years, WFP food purchases from developing countries amounted to 80 percent of the total outlay of close to 2.9 billion dollars. In 2008 alone, 427 million dollars were spent in African countries, out of a total of 1.4 billion dollars.

“WFP’s policy is to buy food as close to where it is needed as possible. We used to buy it through the regular markets, which is a good thing, but they don’t always benefit poor small-scale producers,” he said, referring to a new WFP programme called Purchase for Progress.

This programme aims to give poor farmers access to a market for their surplus produce, providing them with more income while guaranteeing the subsistence needs of their families.

Purchase for Progress, which is being implemented in countries like Haiti and Mozambique with the help of the European Union, seeks to open farmers’ access to markets by improving the quality and presentation of their products.

Initially the WFP guarantees to purchase the food produced, at competitive prices.

Lodesani mentioned other challenges that “need to be closely watched,” such as the cost of food, which is still expensive according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) food commodity price index.

People in developing countries are affected by high food prices, which create a situation where “food is available, but significant segments of the population do not have access to it,” he said.

The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009, a report by FAO and the WFP, says that of the 1.02 billion hungry people in the world today, 642 million are in the Asia-Pacific region, 265 million in sub-Saharan Africa, 53 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, 42 million in the Middle East and North Africa, and 15 million in industrialised countries.

The first of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed by U.N. member states in 2000 is to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015, compared to 1990 indicators.

To meet the immediate target of reducing the number of undernourished people in the world by between 90 and 100 million in 2010, Lodesani says the WFP needs nearly 4.5 billion dollars.

Help is needed not only from rich countries but also from developing nations, both in operational and financial terms.

“In Latin America we will continue to work increasingly with the resources of the countries themselves, because it is a developing region that can contribute to this type of programme out of its own resources,” he said.

“The trend is increasingly for countries to finance programmes with the help of WFP, based on their own resources,” he said, adding that Brazil has already contributed 80 million dollars to WFP projects.

According to Lodesani, the WFP may also participate in new technical aid programmes in Brazil, for example projects to “map and detect the most vulnerable populations,” which could identify target beneficiaries of the government assistance programme known as Bolsa Familia (Family Grant).

“We know Brazil is interested in this type of joint venture,” Lodesani added.

He said Bolsa Familia was “a very important social protection programme in terms of food security.”

Bolsa Familia, one of the most popular programmes undertaken by the government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, provides a small monthly cash grant to 11 million poor families on condition that their children attend school and are vaccinated. Most of the stipend money is spent on food.

Analysts say the programme drives the growth of local economies.

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